Panic buttons for seniors must go

By Neil Versel

Neil_Versel_LargeNursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other senior residences, it is time to join the 21st Century. Those panic buttons you routinely give your residents have got to go. Now.

If you grew up in the 1980s like I did, you know that "I've fallen and I can't get up" became as much a part of the lexicon as "Where's the beef?" or "I pity the fool." That was the tagline for an early personal emergency response system (PERS) called LifeAlert that first hit the market in 1987.

LifeAlert went away for a while, but it's back. The ads still feature a variation of the catchphrase, and the saying is right there at the top of the company's home page. The thing is, the technology isn't much better than it was 25 years ago. While LifeAlert and others in the PERS business have added such things as smartphone apps and connectivity to home fire alarms, users still have to push the button to summon help. That's a fatal flaw. Literally.

I've been on personal leave for most of the last two weeks because my elderly grandmother was on death watch after a fall. She finally succumbed last Friday to a combination of a subdural hematoma, dementia and simply the ravages of living more than 93 years, but not before the whole family went home when she stabilized and even started drinking coffee again, showing that she wouldn't go down without a fight.

While it probably was her time to go, I'm convinced she suffered unnecessarily despite the fact the senior apartment complex we moved her into just a few months ago issues a Lifeline PERS pendant or watch to every resident. It's just a panic button, wirelessly connected to a very early 1990s-style landline phone in each apartment and receivers in some of the common areas.

Panic Button PERSShe was wearing the pendant when caregivers found her passed out on the sofa about three weeks ago, where she was for perhaps as long as eight hours. The panic button was useless for someone who had already been suffering from dementia and who had sustained a head injury. Absolutely useless.

I don't know if she would have survived with any quality of life, but a PERS with automatic fall detection and perhaps wall-mounted motion detectors would have immediately known something was wrong and summoned paramedics hours earlier. Instead, my dear grandmother lay motionless on the couch overnight as she bled on her brain.

Ironically, Lifeline is now owned by Royal Philips Electronics, one of the growing number of companies offering "passive" PERS that automatically detects falls and other serious health risks that affect the elderly. And Wednesday, the U.S. division of Netherlands-based Philips introduced CarePartners Mobile, a free iPhone and Android app that allows caregivers to coordinate the care of elderly and sick relatives. While Philips does not give any indication that the app connects with PERS devices, I imagine that is coming.

I have heard from another older relative who tried the Lifeline with AutoAlert passive PERS that the Philips product returned several false positives and called for help when none is needed, but isn't a false alarm better than no alarm at all? The technology isn't perfect, but it is a major improvement on something that hasn't changed much in decades.

Today, I call upon anyone caring for the elderly to make passive PERS a standard of care. Panic buttons are no longer good enough.